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Fuel becomes top U.S. export

For the first time in 60 years, the nation is a net exporter of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

For the first time, the top export of the United States, the biggest gas guzzler in the world, is - wait for it - fuel.

Measured in dollars, the country is on pace this year to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel than any other single export, according to U.S. census data going back to 1990. It will also be the first year in more than 60 that America has been a net exporter of these fuels.

A decade ago, fuel was not even among the top 25 exports. And for the last five years, America's top export was aircraft.

The trend is significant because for decades the United States has relied on huge imports of fuel from Europe to meet demand. And up until a few years ago, whenever gasoline prices climbed, there were complaints in Congress that U.S. refiners were not growing quickly enough to satisfy domestic demand. That controversy would appear to be over.

Still, the United States is nowhere close to energy independence. America remains the world's largest importer of crude oil. From January to October, it imported 2.7 billion barrels of oil, worth about $280 billion.

Fuel exports, worth an estimated $88 billion in 2011, have surged for two reasons:

Crude oil, the raw material from which gasoline and other refined products are made, is a lot more expensive. Oil prices averaged $95 a barrel in 2011, while gasoline averaged $3.52 a gallon, a record. A decade ago, oil averaged $26 a barrel, while gasoline averaged $1.44 a gallon.

The volume of fuel exports is rising. The United States is using less fuel because of a weak economy and more efficient cars and trucks. That allows refiners to sell more fuel to rapidly growing economies in Latin America, for example. In 2011, U.S. refiners exported 117 million gallons per day of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products, up from 40 million gallons per day a decade earlier.

There is at least one domestic downside to America's growing role as a fuel exporter. Observers say the trend helps explain why U.S. motorists are paying more for gasoline: The more fuel sent overseas, the less of a supply cushion there is at home.

Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service.

"It's a world market," Kloza said.